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Discerning the Written Word

Our society assigns great importance to the written word. Technology has only increased the weight that people give words others read because today it is so easy to “publish.” At one time, people needed a chisel and a block or a quill and paper and then hope to find an audience for their work. No more, thanks to computers and the cyber-mountains of social media platforms, apps, etc. Perhaps all that progress is an improvement, or maybe we have taken a step or more back. Regardless, the written word retains its place of privilege, and people understand it is important, even if not everyone always recognizes or fully appreciates the ramifications.

To illustrate the perceived importance of the written word, how often have you heard that words have meaning and consequences? Recall the infamous line from about twenty-five years ago: “It all depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” The political career of a prominent politician seemed to hang on this one word. What a memorable time.

As important as the written word is to us now, it wasn’t always that way. Before the printing press was invented, written texts were not accessible to most people, so other forms of communication were far more important and necessary. Of course, there were exceptions. For example, the Christian creedal formulas were written down.

But before the written word achieved prominence, the spoken word was most important. “A man’s word is his bond,” was and remains a mantra. And, as the Scripture says, “say yes when you mean yes and say no when you mean no.” Forms of oral communication abounded, including myths, stories, parables, and good yarns. Particularly before the printing press, the ability to share a story, repeat what you heard, and pass it on to others was a skill that was highly treasured and held in esteem.

All of this illustrates an essential point to understand when trying to appreciate how human beings communicate. A single word almost always has a well-defined meaning. But stories, myths, and parables can be open to interpretation. A misunderstood story can be a disaster, while one that is clear can be moving and helpful.

A problem with the written word is that this powerful force can be manipulated. For instance, there’s the preacher who quotes from one part of Scripture, refers to another part, and moves to a third reference before exclaiming, “The word of the Lord!” Yes, God’s word taken out of context! A skilled manipulator of the written word can make the Bible teach any point he wishes.

An image, on the other hand, cannot be so easily manipulated. As the old saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” That is not to say that the image that is used cannot be deliberately misconstrued. The verbal tone of the person who is communicating about an image can make all the difference in the world to how a listener understands his words.

Translations can be tricky and were challenging when the text of the Bible was first translated from the Greek and Latin texts. It was such a problem, with huge consequences, that those in power and authority either resisted the entire translation effort—arguably the Roman Catholic position for a period of time—or the translated text became identified as the King James version. The blood that was spilled and the struggle that took place in this task of translation fills the annals of both kings and popes.

Responsible Power

All of this is an important preamble to my main point. Since words are so powerful, must there not be some responsibility that comes with this power? Those who wield words must understand and weigh the ramifications of what they say and write.

Unfortunately, some who have vast platforms take little to no responsibility, so the consumer of words needs to be prepared and aware. For the scrupulous person who trolls the internet in search of clarity to a theological question, there is much more peril than there is satisfaction and help. Far too often, scrupulous people can fall victim to the theological battles that permeate the internet, falsely believing they have discovered the truth, when in fact they have been manipulated into believing something untrue.

For this reason, I counsel readers of this newsletter to avoid these social media sites and platforms. They are not helpful and do much more harm than good. They guarantee nothing more than increased anxiety and confusion.

Sadly, unlike the movie rating system, there is no reputable guide to the content and theological perspective offered by social media purveyors, known these days as “influencers.” As a general rule, it is best to avoid all of them. Words have power, and those who suffer with the scrupulous disorder must carefully select the words they hear and read so they do not unintentionally inflict more pain and suffering upon themselves.

Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR

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